Why Ukraine may elect a jokester

A TV comedian who plays a humble, honest president is now the leading presidential candidate. His popularity says much about the unifying effect of humor.

Reuters
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukrainian actor and candidate in the upcoming presidential election, waits backstage before a comedy show in Kiev Feb. 22.

Ukraine is entering its sixth year of a low-level conflict with Russia in which more than 10,000 people have been killed. More people live in poverty today than before a pro-democracy revolution in 2014. And the current president, Petro Poroshenko, recently tried but failed to declare martial law nationwide. He is also caught up in the country’s latest corruption scandal.

Yet since 2015, Ukrainians have been united in one thing. They have laughed over such troubles by watching a popular TV sitcom, “Servant of the People.” The series, which was picked up by Netflix, stars a comedian who plays a teacher propelled into the presidency after a student puts a video of his anti-establishment tirade on YouTube. The fictional president’s honesty and humility become an asset to him as a leader.

The comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is now a real-life candidate for president. In fact, he is the front-runner in the polls for a March 31 election, leading Mr. Poroshenko and another established politician, Yulia Tymoshenko. If he wins, the victory may show how humor can allow an entire nation to reflect on their woes and enable them to work together. 

In Ukraine, where distrust of the political elite runs high, Mr. Zelenskiy’s popularity can be attributed to the fact that the humor in his show has been an emotional release. The leveling effect of the political jokes has helped reduce fear of the powerful oligarchs. The laughter reverses a collective dread of corrupt politics.

Even on the campaign trail, Zelenskiy uses humor as a great equalizer to remind people that they are in charge. “You yourselves know what to do,” he says. He also asks people to propose candidates for his hoped-for presidential cabinet.

Ukrainians may be ready for a “fresh face,” as Zelenskiy calls himself, even if he has no experience as a policymaker. Besides being trusted for his humor, his other great appeal is a promise to tackle corruption – a common topic in his show. He pledges to serve only one term and to lift immunity from prosecution for top officials.

In many democracies, anti-establishment candidates have lately gained office or prominence. But perhaps none has risen so fast and so far by using political humor as Zelenskiy. His show starts by appealing to popular cynicism. But it offers a touch of unifying hope. His comedy has forced a new self-awareness in Ukraine, the kind that may work against the self-interests of those in power.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why Ukraine may elect a jokester
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/the-monitors-view/2019/0301/Why-Ukraine-may-elect-a-jokester
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe